Thursday, 11 June 2009
I met Matt through a review, not of him, not by him, but by me, of another poet. I didn't like the book.I thought it was doing something false. I was wrong but I not very wrong, and wrong in the right way, or so I still think. I received a letter from Matt arguing the book's case. I answered at some length, very courteously arguing my view. He wrote back with more argument, and I responded. We exchanged a few letters this way, arriving at a hearty respect and even affection for each other. It might be that he then invited me to Liverpool to do a reading and I accepted, or maybe we taught an Arvon Course together. The poet I had criticised was our guest reader. Matt suggested him, the old mischief,and I accepted the dare. When we arrived I discovered a third of the course were fans of the savaged poet. No tempers were lost, all was fine, much was understood and the criticised poet came and went with very good grace.
Year on year Matt and I were in correspondence. We met sometimes, more often we wrote and read each other's books. He was a great proponent of mine, particularly from Metro (1988) on. I admired his straight, warm, muscular and anecdotal poems of growing up in Bootle, of friends, of fishing, of class and of mortality. He put Michael on to my work and another friendship developed from that. To lose them both within a month is devastating. For those who knew them both, knew their generosity and commitment and help at regular first hand, it is like the loss of two major landmarks in a now more desolate landscape.
Here are three short poems by Matt from his New and Selected Poems of 1990, An Elegy for the Galosherman.
An Elegy for the Galosherman
Who pads the Bowles Street jigger now?
Who's pacing there on noiseless soles
breathing the bad-blood darkness in
between the sleeping back-to-backs?
Was it a dull bull-headed thing
betrayed by its own strength that chafed
the backyard walls? Or some
bewildered sad old man
who wished to keep the darkness clean?
I think the galosherman was a lamplighter. Matt explained at the time, and even ran the title by me as the title of the selected poems, along with others. This was the title I preferred and so did he. The voices I hear in Matt are a fascinating mixture of Dylan Thomas, Berthold Brecht, Norman Nicholson, Tony Harrison... maybe even Roger McGough, just a touch.
In the eye of Florrie's front garden
peppery-throated lilies grow,
loudspeakerfuls of sobering hymns
and mustering drums which at a flick
can swamp the Sodom-and-Gomorrah streets
with God's Own Light...
Tread softly, moggies of Other Persuasions
who'd drill your acids in her soil.
Gorgeous poem made so by the last two lines. The first line, I think: Too cosy Matt, this Grandma Florrie stuff, too sentimental. "Peppery-throated" though is pretty sharply observed, and maybe Florrie was too, and then "loudspeakerfuls" is Matt's Modernism butting in. Soon we're into the Bible-black Llaregub world with a minor fanfare of Dylan Thomas. Penultimate, the complex joke of manners in the moggies and their Other Persuasions - and, finally, that damn hard, peppery, terminal, cold detachment without which no poem.
The Song of Caedmon
And God said:
sing me somewhat, Caedmon.
I would have sung the mullet and whiting
shoaling at Whitby, the occasional porpoise
that breaks a summer horizon, the pugs
and goats poked into market.
I'd have had men listen
to new songs at harp-passings,
sung the wondrous windwork of gulls.
But God thought otherwise, sold me on dreams:
sing me Creation, Caedmon, the song
that's acceptable, that does me some credit.
So I the uneducated
was saddled with miracle; big words
broke on me, a galeforce of syllables
swept up from nowhere. I would have welcomed
a start nearer home, a local beginning.
But God thought otherwise:
work on my handiwork, carve it on crosses,
sing in Northumbrian the way the world got to
this bleak point of history. Sing to the mindful,
make me some worship.
I would have started the other way round,
charting our wonders, the wonders about us,
the disorder of gulls in a pleasure of words,
the glint of the mullet, the pigness of pigs.
...the glint of the mullet...
Now this is even better. I heard Matt read this a few times. The family voice, the respectable working class voice of "the song that's acceptable, the song that does me credit" is, I think, deeply moving. Especially since it is the voice the distilled Simpson-Caedmon figure. Matt, the Cambridge man, is rarely to be heard or detected except in the breadth and depth of his reading. He recalled to me how he'd giggle manically at The Goons, and cultivate a voice at Cambridge, where he would have cut a handsome figure.
He was a fisherman, of course, and many of the later poems in Elegy.. are about fishing, especially about the death of a policeman he used to go fishing with. Come to think of it there is a surpsing amount of death in the Selected poems - those celebrations of the vanished and unsung often stand by gravesides. And, ah, at this bleak point of history! When was it ever not, but the bleakness is sharp and clear next to the glint of the mullet and those piggish pigs.
All those poems about vanishings. There is a tragic layer under the familiar and joshing. One last poem then. The fishing, the dead policeman remembered in his last year..
O Wormes Meate
Bullying tackle through a kissing-gate that groaned,
bringing bait we'd dug the day before
to tease that 'fearfullest of fish,' the chub,
we walked a churchyard to the river bank,
past tangles of wrreaths clumped wet against
a wall, the earth still raw from burial. One year
of fishing left to you, a joke began its journey home:
'Look,' you said, 'some poor sod's being made a meal of there!'
...that 'fearfullest of fish', the chub...
There is Touchstone there, and Hamlet and Mercutio, and John Donne there, there but hardly there. Just enough there so you know it's not pushy or showing off or that malarkey.